North Bay Resident Jonathan Melrod Pens Labor Memoir

todaySeptember 15, 2022

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Over the previous 12 months, the U.S. has skilled a surge in labor organizing. 

After many years of decline in union participation and actual wages, staff at Amazon, Starbucks, REI and quite a few different corporations huge and small have voted to kind unions or participated in different types of labor actions, usually within the face of fierce resistance. The surge in labor motion has been accompanied by historic recognition of unions, with 71% of respondents to an August Gallup ballot voicing approval for unions, the very best charge since 1965.

This makes it a becoming time for the publication of Sonoma County resident Jonathan Melrod’s new memoir, ‘Combating Occasions: Organizing on the Entrance Strains of the Class Battle.’ The e-book facilities on Melrod’s 13-year effort to “harness working class militancy and leap begin a revolution on the store flooring of the American Motors’ auto meeting plant.”

After reducing his enamel as a university radical, Melrod takes a union job at an American Motors’ manufacturing facility and begins to make hassle. Melrod and his colleagues publish a radical staff’ publication titled ‘Combating Occasions,’ lead quite a few strikes and walkouts, and, finally, face down the American Motors-funded defamation lawsuit in opposition to the publication’s editors.

A lot has modified on the earth because the Nineteen Seventies, however Melrod’s memoir, jam-packed with tales from the entrance traces, makes for an entertaining, instructional and well timed learn. An excerpt from the e-book follows.

‘Combating Occasions,’ revealed by PM Press, might be available in shops and on-line on Sept. 27. Melrod will communicate on the Sebastopol Copperfield’s Books on Thursday, Oct. 6 at 7pm. The occasion is free, however RSVPing on-line is advisable. —Will Carruthers, Information Editor

The ups and downs in auto, based mostly largely on shoppers’ desire for this or that mannequin, meant meeting crops went by means of cycles of layoffs and expanded employment. The Kenosha American Motors’ plant noticed a mass hiring of younger staff who had been rebellious and never cowed by the corporate or the union. And dissatisfaction with Division 838 long-term chief steward Russ Gillette reached a tipping level.

Gillette’s identify didn’t even seem on the vote tally for the 1979 stewards’ election. I can not recall if Gillette went on sick go away or selected to not run, however he’d had sufficient. Gillette’s departure fractured his clique’s standing.

When election outcomes had been posted, I had positioned second with 132 votes, topped solely by Peggy Applegate, the one lady steward.

For the election, I organized a staff of contemporary, younger activists, loosely affiliated with the UWO United Staff Group, to run for stewards’ positions. Of the twelve positions, 4 of our candidates received along with me. Probably the most important victory accrued to Jimmy Graham as the primary steward of colour in Division 838.

Joanne Tank and Jimmy Graham had been elected as union stewards within the 1979 division elections that dislodged the conservative “all-white” clique. Picture courtesy of Jonathan Melrod.

The vote totals introduced a conundrum. Kojak, my former Milwaukee head steward, was elected and introduced his intent to run for chief. Jim Gathings, who had positioned behind me with 127 votes, additionally introduced he was operating for chief.

Gathings hailed from the 838 old fashioned and was a pickup-driving, tobacco-chewing, self-proclaimed cowboy with an inflated stomach hanging over a big turquoise belt buckle. Like fairly a couple of within the plant, Gathings’s different job was tending his farm, and he additionally held a semiskilled restore job.

Fairly than run for chief, I opted to let Kojak problem Gathings, planning to dedicate the 12 months to educating UWO-affiliated candidates learn how to turn out to be efficient union reps. I could possibly be affected person, as I used to be down for the lengthy haul.

Gathings, nonetheless capable of rally Gillette’s base, beat Kojak, who had appealed primarily to former Milwaukee guys who had beforehand transferred to the Kenosha plant.

By advantage of being chief, Gathings gained entitlement to extra time if any employee in 838 on his shift was scheduled to work extra time. Gathings sucked up each minute of extra time, offering a fats paycheck but in addition inextricably tying him to administration, as a piglet latched to its mom’s teat.

Whereas day by day interplay between Gathings and me remained superficially cordial, underlying stress tinged our each dialog. Our clashing outlooks surfaced with venom one Monday morning. Heading for 9 thirty break, I bumped into an animated scrum of younger division members. “Melrod, did you hear? Gathings instructed Cathy (the steward) she shouldn’t be kissin’ on a nigger. It’s means fucked up.”

A gaggle of Division 838 people had been partying behind Madore’s bar after work the previous Friday. Cathy and Jessie Sewell, a Black employee, exchanged a kiss. A kiss between a Black man and a white lady—nothing extra.

However, the incident was stoking a brushfire, and I wanted to get the details down.

Jessie labored one station up the road. I had spent hours hanging with Jessie, and different regulars, behind Madore’s, consuming pints. Jessie was additionally a strong Combating Occasions ally.

As quickly as I might get a utility employee to alleviate me, I checked in with Cathy. She was a brand new steward, and I had been mentoring her to undertake a extra confrontational stance with administration.

“Hey, Cathy—heard some bullshit’s happening with Gathings. He’s been operating his mouth spouting racist shit about Jessie and also you. What’s up?”

“Jon, I’m afraid for this to show into an enormous public incident. I don’t need Gathings coming down on me.”

“I hear you, Cathy, and I get it, however Gathings bought no proper to speak about you. Simply because he’s chief doesn’t imply he’s bought any enterprise getting in your face about who you need to occasion with or who you kiss! That’s sexist, racist b.s. Plus you’re a steward now, and it is advisable set an instance of fine unionism. Gathings, and I don’t care if he’s chief, can’t go round mouthing racist bullshit. He’s gotta deal with you want a grown lady, with respect. Gathings is means out of line.”

“Jon, please let me give it some thought.”

“Cathy, it’s not you inflicting hassle—it’s Gathings. However when you really feel prefer it’s over and need to drop it, I’m cool.”

By lunch, the entire division buzzed. Blacks had been outraged. Many grabbed me, eager to know what could possibly be executed. Previously, a racist incident might need sparked an indignant response after which fade; not this time, I assumed.

As division chair, I put the incident on the agenda. I met with the opposite stewards who had run with me, and we mentioned our obligation to handle racism on the division assembly. Graham took a robust place, as he had beforehand complained about Gathings’s shit perspective towards Blacks.

With rising depth, phrase unfold of a confrontation happening. Black folks, a lot of whom had by no means considered attending a division union assembly, beat the drum to name out Gathings. Equally, many youthful whites took offense at Gathings’s habits.

I wanted to get Jessie onboard. “Hey, bro. Que pasa? What’s up with this Gathings bullshit? He’s been mouthing some nasty identify calling ’bout you.”

A pained look crossed Jessie’s face, a stark distinction to his ordinary clowning demeanor. He seemed damage and embarrassed. Though he was free and equal to Gathings, he felt caught taking shit from a self-proclaimed cowboy whose major motive for being chief was greed.

“Melrod, what I’m gonna do? Ain’t no person care. Gathings is chief.”

“Fuck that, bro! We bought our guys—Ernie, your important man—and Pedro bought the Mexicans. We bought the Blacks who’re bored with racist shit. We bought the younger folks and the Combating Occasions folks. We don’t gotta let this slide. We gotta jack Gathings up. It’s on the agenda for the division assembly. Ya with me?”

Pressure on the ground ratcheted up. I seen Gathings huddling along with his white restore buddies (there being just one Black 838 restore employee).

It might need been the most important division assembly in 838’s historical past. I seemed out, and plenty of of our folks had proven up, significantly Blacks. I additionally seen a gaggle of restore staff and a smattering of old-school, conservative varieties who I assumed had attended at Gathings’s urging. I referred to as the assembly to order. Outdated enterprise first.

“Hey, Melrod, we ain’t right here for no previous enterprise. We’re right here ’bout what Gathings mentioned about Jessie.”

“All proper then, new enterprise.”

I referred to as an audible, turning towards Gathings sitting subsequent to me, a slightly uncomfortable seating plan.

“Jim, I consider people need to hear concerning the incident with Jessie and Cathy that entails you.”

“Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t severe. I used to be simply joking ’bout what I mentioned. It ain’t that huge a deal.”

I’d been watching Jessie; his face tightened. He sat for a couple of uncomfortable seconds. I waited for the slightest motion of his hand and instantly referred to as on him earlier than he put it again down.

“I been listening to Gathings has been speaking about me. He bought no enterprise talkin’ about me being Black or any colour.”

Gathings, in a voice barely audible, mentioned, “Yeah, I shouldn’ta mentioned nottin’.” This may’t be the tip of it, I assumed. That is too necessary.

I noticed Graham’s hand. “Jimmy.”

“That ain’t an appropriate apology. If Gathings is chief, he can’t be talkin’ racist shit about nobody. The union is about us all. The union’s sturdy provided that we’re collectively. I by no means need to hear nobody utilizing language calling a brother or sister that fucked-up phrase! You hear me, Gathings?”

“I didn’t imply no hurt.”

“Gathings—ain’t the purpose. Your discuss is dangerous. You bought no proper talkin’ about Jessie or Cathy. Ain’t what you are promoting.”

After his years as a labor organizer, Jonathan Melrod moved to the Bay Space to attend legislation faculty. Picture courtesy of Jonathan Melrod.

For the primary time, Blacks within the division stood their floor and made their voices heard, not simply concerning the incident with Jessie and Cathy but in addition how they felt ignored and disregarded by the union. Gathings had been the catalyst, however the dialogue was cathartic for airing long-held grievances about discriminatory therapy and favoritism—from each administration and union.

Anyone tapped a keg, and I seen folks filling huge pink cups with beer. Beer on an empty abdomen, significantly as tempers flared, didn’t portend nicely.

“I feel we coated the agenda, however I’ve a couple of feedback. First off, I need to thank the large turnout. Anybody who’s bought one thing to say can say it right here. Having mentioned that—the underside line is there’s no place for racism in our union, no means, no how! Adjourned.”

Steward John Leyendecker and I chatted within the beer line. Beers in hand, we talked. Within the drift of the group, we ended up throughout from Gathings and one other old-school steward. You possibly can lower the stress.

Gathings stared at me with palpable scorn. We couldn’t have come from two extra completely different worlds. I had left the East Coast for faculty in Madison. He had stayed on the farm and gone to work younger at AMC. He chewed tobacco. I smoked pot. His proudest second was when his daughter positioned first at 4-H for her cow, and I had come from Milwaukee and uprooted his world, in his eyes.

“Hey, Melrod. I don’t like what you been saying about me.”

“Solely talkin’ reality, Gathings. You had an opportunity to name me out however didn’t. I don’t like listening to the way you dissed my accomplice Jessie. I can’t change your pondering, however all of us bought to behave proper within the union.”

“Fuck you, Melrod. I’ll say what the fuck I would like.”

The area between us shrank. I braced for incoming, however then Leyendecker [one of the recently elected young stewards] inserted himself between us. Leyendecker, a minimum of in response to him, had been a Navy SEAL. I admit, he threw down like a man who knew learn how to battle.

“Go forward, you redneck, convey it.”

The opposite old-school steward jumped in. “Let’s all cool it. Assembly’s over.”

“Yeah,” I mentioned as Leyendecker and I turned to depart.

In a testomony to the facility of grassroots union democracy, the division assembly had taken up the important thing challenge of racism, beforehand ignored or swept below the carpet.

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